September 7, 2022

Officials, Environmentalists Seek More Stringent Flood Mitigation Measures

By Donald Gilpin

Last week marked the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Ida, which caused 30 deaths and an estimated $95 billion in damages in New Jersey. There was widespread flooding in the area, with more than nine inches of rain and many roads impassable.

Today, September 7, as the 2022 storm season makes its arrival known in Princeton, environmental leaders and elected officials are gathering in Manville for a press conference outside of a home that was badly damaged by last year’s storm. They will be urging Gov. Phil Murphy to take action to mitigate the effects of increased rainfall and flooding, which have been caused by climate change.

Speakers are expected to emphasize the need to pass the New Jersey Protecting Against Climate Threats (NJPACT) initiative that would upgrade flood hazard and stormwater guidelines in order to better prepare the state for the impacts of climate change and powerful storms. NJPACT advocates will urge the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) to adopt proposed but delayed new stormwater requirements and to use updated rainfall data.

With this year’s hurricane season revving up, Princeton has worked to prepare for its next encounter with extreme weather conditions. “We’re doing well within the constraints of what state law will allow us to do,” said Princeton Councilman David Cohen, who will be speaking at the Manville conference. But he emphasized that because of state rules there is “a gaping hole in our regulations in Princeton right now.” State rules stipulate that local stormwater regulations cannot be enhanced above the state requirements for residential site improvements.

Acknowledging the state’s efforts to address the housing shortage in New Jersey, Cohen added, “I’m somewhat sympathetic, but my feeling is that it’s shortsighted to say that municipalities can’t require enhanced stormwater rules for housing projects.”

He pointed out that housing projects constitute about 90 percent of new housing in Princeton with the recent affordable housing settlement. He continued, “So it’s a golden opportunity for us to be trying to do more to better manage our stormwater. We have neighborhoods in Princeton —along Princeton Pike, Gallup Road, Wheatsheaf Lane — that are slammed when you get a big storm.”

Cohen cited a FEMA study that found that every dollar spent on resiliency investment saves six dollars on damage repair in the future. “So while I sympathize with developers who say it’s more expensive for us to do more elaborate, more aggressive stormwater management for our properties, the cost is actually much less,” he said. “It’s one of these no-brainers.  You have to make the investment to save money in the future.”

Mike Pisauro, policy director of The Watershed Institute, which has been a leader in advocating for enhanced storm protection rules, described some of the problems brought on by climate change. “Storms are getting more intense and we are getting more of them,” he said. “Precipitation is increasing drastically and we know that the way we design our stormwater management systems they are way undersized. We calculate storms based on 106 years’ worth of data, and that data collection ended in 1999.”

He went on to point out that not only has the amount of rainfall increased significantly since 1999, but so has the intensity of storms. “We normally assume that a storm occurs over a 24-hour period,” he said. “It’s gradual, ramps up a little bit, then dissipates, sort of a bell curve-type situation. But what really is happening in many of our storms — Ida was a prime example, and Henri — we’ve had a couple of them in the past couple of years — you get these really intense storms that are very quick and they dump all the rain in an hour or two hours, not that gentle bell curve anymore.”

Pisauro warned that every development approved based on outdated data puts Princeton in jeopardy of flooding. “Developers are allowed to use these old standards that we know aren’t working,” he said. “That’s why we are so adamant that the governor needs to release the emergency NJPACT rules and get the rest of NJPACT out now, because every project the zoning board approves is baking in additional flooding in the future.  We’re putting people in the future at risk because of our short-sightedness.”

Pisauro acknowledged that developers will continue to resist additional regulations that will increase costs of development. “Developers may have to go back and rejigger a bit their development,” he said. “They may have to move it a bit farther from a stream, or enlarge or add an extra bioretention rain garden system, but the upshot is that Princeton won’t have to close roads. They won’t have to go back and rescue people who have been flooded on the roads. They won’t have to rebuild bridges that got washed away or roads that were destroyed because of flood water. Who should pay those costs, the people who are designing the system and should know better, or everyone else who’s now stuck with it?”

Maya K. van Rossum, Delaware riverkeeper and leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, claims that environmentalists and developers have common goals. “I never understood the opposition of developers and business to protecting the floodplain, ensuring better development practices, using stormwater strategies that soak the water back into the ground rather than dumping it into the creek and onto our downstream neighbors,” she said.

She continued, “When developers develop in the right place and in the right way where they work with nature and enhance nature then the evidence is solid that the development projects they create sell more quickly and sell at a higher price. People like to live near healthy ecosystems. That’s what people want, so it’s really in the developers best interests to do it in the right way.”

The opposition of developers must be “short-sighted, or selfish, or simply uninformed,”  she added, claiming, “There’s no way to justify opposition to doing it the right way when it comes to protecting people from flooding and flood damages, and protecting nature.”

Van Rossum stated that New Jersey is not doing enough to protect flood plains from development. She explained that flood plains need to be free from structures so that they can act like a sponge and soak up flood waters rather than allow flood waters to flow to downstream roadways and neighbors.

Murphy visited Hillsborough on September 1 to meet with other federal, state, and local officials to assess progress made in the year since Ida, and he noted that additional state and federal aid will be delivered to local communities. 

Environmental organizations, municipal officials, and others will be keeping the pressure on the governor to implement the emergency NJPACT as soon as possible.